Like many I was both glad to hear that Terry Pratchett had been spared the worst ravages of his rare and traumatic form of early onset Alzheimers when he died last week, and gutted to know that his magnificently satirical worldview had been ripped away from us. I have a close and deeply personal relationship with Terry’s books. They have given me comfort, perspective, and so much laughter ever since I met them. Each one of them is a living creature.
Terry managed to make Death a sympathetic, entertaining, and occasionally even pitiable character. Throughout the book Death became more human, more curious, and more empathic about his duty. He delivered a kind of justice, and eased the transition from life to after-life. When death impinges on my own existence, I often turn to the Discworld Death for comfort.
No topic was too controversial for Terry to prise open and place under the microscope of the Discworld. He took earthly problems like racism and tweaked them ever so slightly, so that in his fantastical cultural melting pot, Ankh-Morpork, the city became ever more cosmopolitan – welcoming, as it did, trolls, dwarves, and even the undead. But his vampires sign “The Pledge” and foreswear “ze B-vord”, becoming obsessed with other pursuits, such as photography or coffee in place of blood, and his werewolves, some of them vegetarians, suffer from dreadful PLT – Pre Lunar Tension.
In Ankh-Morpork speciesism was much more interesting than racism – in Terry’s words “Black and white lived together in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.” In each subsequent book, the Discworld became richer and more complex, and allowed us to dig into the roots of our society and our psychology. He made a fantasy world of dragons and magic, and used it to hold up a slightly twisted but inordinately clear mirror to life on Earth.
His Patrician of Ankh Morpork, Havelock Vetinari, must surely be the most intellectually gifted tyrant of all time. “A great many rulers, good and bad and quite often dead, know what happened; a rare few actually manage, by dint of much effort, to know what’s happening. Lord Vetinari considered both types to lack ambition.” Like the Discworld Death, Vetinari’s ruthless and tyrannical rule displays an unexpectedly compassionate and comforting nature. Under his rule Ankh-Morpork works.
Pratchett’s world has villains and heroes, and even leather clad barbarian heroines (who complain about the way the obligatory leather outfits chafe). In his earth-based series, “Truckers”, he tackles equal opportunity more directly, with his nome-ish society uncertain about the wisdom of letting girls learn to read:
“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs,” said Masklin.
“That’s females for you,” said Gurder. “Didn’t I say that letting them learn to read was a bad idea? It overheats their brains.”
“She said the most important thing in the world was little frogs living in a flower,” Masklin went on, trying to listen to the voice of his own memory. He hadn’t been listening very hard at the time. He’d been too angry.
“Sounds like you could boil a kettle on her head,” said Angalo.
Whenever I’m sad, sick, or just bored, I re-read a Pratchett book. They give me hope, perspective, and laughter. They speak to something deep in my soul. To my fundamental optimism about human nature. To my love of justice. To my quirky sense of humour. To my need for hope.
In Pratchett’s worlds, stories have power. Narrativium is a fundamental element on the Discworld, and it is essential to stories the way Carbon is essential to Earthly life. If Narrativium existed here, the change.org petition demanding Death bring Terry back would work, if only because so many of us want it to. The good guys would win in the face of seemingly insuperable odds (“it’s a million to one chance, but it might just work”). And death would be a relief – almost a meeting with a compassionate friend – instead of the terrifying prospect most of us find it to be.
In a world where Narrativium held sway, I would be able to walk right in to the office of the Patrician (perhaps bearing a jammy devil to bribe the guards), and put the wrongs of the world right. Magic would be real, but it would be hard work and always exact its price. Rules would be important, and carefully broken. “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.” The end of the world would be little more than a temporary inconvenience. “Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.”
And Terry Pratchett would be immortal.
In fact, if you take his worldview to heart, perhaps he is.
“In the Ramtops village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence. “
“Have you got any last words?”
“Yes! I don’t want to go!”
“Well, succinct, anyway.”